Archive for Wednesday, October 25, 1989


October 25, 1989


Don Steeples has never experienced his area of expertise so closely.

At 5:04 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Oct. 17, Steeples watched trees moving in ways he had never seen before.

"In addition to going back and forth, they were twisting in a torsional fashion; they were twisting in on themselves," he said.

Steeples, 44, is the Deputy Director of the Kansas Geological Survey at Kansas University.

Steeples, a seismologist involved with the study of man-made or natural earth tremors, in the past had taught a course called "Earthquake and Man" at KU. After his earthquake experience last week, he now could add a personal touch to that course.

While in Sunnyvale, Calif., with fellow seismologist Rick Miller to teach a course to geologists and others, Steeples experienced a major earthquake first-hand.

"ALL OF A sudden I heard a rumbling," Steeples said. "I realized it was an earthquake."

He and Miller had just completed their presentation at a motel in Sunnyvale, which is only 30 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake.

He said that when the earthquake started, both he and the manager of the lecture series realized at the same time that it was an earthquake; the manager urged everyone to get out of the building and they started toward the door.

"At that point, it got difficult to walk; I was just amazed that the earth is capable of doing that to itself," he said.

During the first few seconds of the earthquake, thoughts about the collapse of the two-story building occurred to Steeples, he said.

After the initial jolt, Steeples said he and the others were able to get away from the motel; they moved about 30 feet away, near the swimming pool.

THERE, THEY watched a man fighting quite unexpected waves.

In writing about his experience a couple of days afterwards, Steeples said the man in the swimming pool was grasping the ladder tightly to "avoid involuntary surfing, and one water wave appeared to reach a height of two or three feet as it surged from one end of the pool to the other, splashing and spilling hundreds of gallons of water 15 to 20 feet from the pool. The man was not hurt, but his eyes were awfully big when he crawled out of the pool a minute or so later."

For himself, Steeples said watching the earthquake up close became "a fantastic experience" for a seismologist.

In his lifetime, Steeples said he has been near eight or nine minor earthquakes, a couple of them near his hometown of Palco last summer. And from his teaching, he even said he knew exactly what happens in a major earthquake, "but I didn't believe it."

"It's one thing to experience an earthquake when you say, `Geez, the earth is kind of shaking,'" he said, "and quite another to have the ground swirl every which way.

"Even on a carnival ride, you've got some idea where it's going next. This was back and forth, up and down; a combination of all those at one time."

HE SAID IN his written report that he and Miller saw waves in the ground nearly one foot high coming from the south. He said they "looked like agricultural terraces moving across the earth's surface.

"We both noted the trees were also twisting in a fashion that neither of us had ever seen before," the report says.

Steeples said it took about 10 seconds after they reached the area around the pool for the earth to stop shaking strongly, although there was minor shaking for about 30 seconds afterwards.

Once he had reached the safe area away from the hotel, he said he began soaking up as much of the experience as he could. He knew he was now experiencing something he had studied for more than 20 years.

"It was a big professional rush for me," he said. "Except for the three seconds or so that I didn't know whether I would get out of the building, it really was a fantastic experience."

After contacting their wives to let them know they were not hurt, Steeples and Miller spent time discussing the event they had just been through. Steeples said they felt a number of smaller aftershocks that night, and a few the next morning.

When he and Miller returned to finish teaching the course on seismology, Steeples said they had "the undivided attention of our audience."

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